Much has changed in Newburyport in the quarter century since a young Jim Rogers, then a Newburyport High School student and football star, washed dishes part time in the local restaurant that would alter the course of his life.
It wasn’t just any Newburyport restaurant. In a town populated with everyday pubs, fish shacks, and family diners, Rogers was lucky to land a job at Scandia, situated smack in the middle of salty old State Street, a door or two down from the iconic Fowle’s diner and newsstand. With its sophisticated food and enlightened hospitality, Scandia was light years ahead of its Newburyport neighbors.
Those who remember Scandia probably also recall its pioneering chef and owner, Gordon Breidenbach. Rogers certainly does, and who he remembers is a restaurateur in the purest and most idealized sense: a fussy, demanding, passionate, creative individual who was deeply dedicated to his staff and his guests—the very soul of a haven of good taste, conviviality, and palate-awakening dishes with European flavors and names. For Rogers, that is what stuck—the lessons, the models, and the examples of what works brilliantly to elevate one dining institution above another. These are the ideas that ignited his zeal and laid a foundation for the culinary career that was to come.
After rapidly rising through the ranks to line cook at Scandia, Rogers was consumed by a long, circuitous voyage—one that led him to seek formal training, to cook in other restaurants with accomplished chefs, and later to weather the ups and downs of various food industry pursuits. Most important to Rogers, however, was the journey that ultimately brought him back home to the town he loves and to what he was born to do.
Although it’s not all that long ago, Rogers’s epiphany came at a time when the foodie revolution that we now take for granted was still simmering. Clearly, it was getting ready to boil. And for young cooks with soaring ambitions, a culinary degree from a respected school was a ticket to the big leagues. So with modest kitchen skills and abundant enthusiasm, Rogers grabbed his student knife kit and headed off to study culinary arts at Newbury College in Boston.
It did not start out well.
“I [was] mixed in with students who had never worked in the restaurant industry before, and [there I was], with four years experience at Scandia, so it was a little boring, especially in the beginning. The first day, we were making tomato crowns and filling them with tuna, and I [was thinking], ‘Really? Seriously?’ But then it got better. I don’t regret it for a minute.”
Those familiar with legendary Boston chefs know that mere mention of the name Moncef Meddeb can evoke both cheers from discerning diners and paralyzing fear among young cooks. But it fell to 19-year-old Rogers, a freshly minted young culinarian, to audition for a job by cooking for Meddeb himself. Of course, Meddeb was no everyday chef. He was owner of the exalted L’Espalier, which had long been ensconced in a fashionable Back Bay brownstone, and was poised to be permanently carved into Boston’s dining history. The pressure on young Rogers could not have been greater.
Chef Meddeb liked his meal and said so to Frank McLellan, who was about to purchase L’Espalier. Rogers got the job. “So, with my fancy culinary degree and my experience cooking at Scandia, which was plentiful—I cooked a lot of great food there—Frank [said] to me, ‘Welcome, you are now on the vegetable station.’” Rogers had been assigned to one of the lowliest jobs in the kitchen. It proved no matter. His time at L’Espalier was exhilarating and formative, and it gave him a chance to amass knowledge, burnish skills, and acquire a host of indelible habits that would serve him and his guests well from that point on.
Rogers recalls: “My first big chef job was at Michael’s Waterfront in Boston. Big place. It was a hopping place. Cool spot. I worked my tail off. But it had its limits in terms of the food they would do.”
“I had a friend who ran Joseph’s Pasta in Haverhill, a small company, and he would ask me to come to work with him and make pasta, and I would say no. But then, one day, I was having a particularly bad day…He [came] to deliver pasta at the restaurant and he asked me again and I said, ‘[OK], let’s make pasta.’”
Coming from the long hours of the restaurant business, Rogers had some misconceptions about his new job. “I figured, well, it’s manufacturing. People work nine to five, right?” Wrong. Rogers embarked on a five-year, nonstop adventure, overseeing production and purchasing, developing new recipes, traveling to Italy to source ideas and products, and honing his organizational and business skills. An intense time indeed, but it was also the beginning of his passion for authentic Italian cooking—the bedrock of his current venture.
Eventually, Rogers reconnected with his hometown of Newburyport, where he returned to run the kitchen at Michael’s Harborside and help rejuvenate 10 Center Street, another Newburyport dining landmark. Most recently, he served as executive chef at the well-regarded Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, New Hampshire.
Then, last year, an opportunity arose that seemed heaven sent: Newburyport’s once-popular Joseph’s Winter Street Cafe, located in a charming mid-19th-century building near the center of town, came on the market. Rogers took the bait. Since then, he has invested every fiber of his being into developing, launching, and operating the restaurant that brings together everything he has come to know and believe.
“I wanted to create a place where people can feel comfortable. Sure, people will always go to places for great food, but for me, it’s the total dining experience—the combination of amazing food, great atmosphere, and great service.”
His restaurant’s name, Andiamo, is Italian for “Let’s go!” It’s as if Rogers is saying, “Finally, after all these years of cooking, eating, managing, thinking, imagining, and learning from the masters, it’s time to really get underway.” andiamo-restaurant.com